July 18, 2019

As someone who has worked for human rights in Central America for many years, I was glad to see the New York Times article of 2-28-99 about the U.N. Truth Commission Report on the Guatemalan civil war. The commission revealed the killing of over two hundred thousand Guatemalan civilians by the Guatemalan military and police forces. Those murders — not at all the acts of “rogue” soldiers but part of a deliberate policy — were committed by forces led by officers who had been trained in counterinsurgency by the U.S. military, primarily at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The fact that our government successfully co-opted the leadership of the military in several third world countries has been well known on the American left for decades.

The terrible truth is that the killing of these people is something our government desired, not something inherently desired by the governments Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Colombia and Mexico. It has been our policy to crush any incipient challenge to dominant United States economic interests. Our government has been in the business of protecting U.S. multinational corporations for decades. This policy was summarized by George Kennan in 1948 in a secret internal State Department memorandum.

Kennan wrote: “[W]e have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to concentrate everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.”

Covertly, that philosophy has ruled U. S. Foreign policy ever since 1948. Meanwhile, a series of spin doctors has perpetuated the tale that our government is the leading defender of democracy in the world. When I first went to Central America in 1958, I too believed that my country was defending democracy. My involvement with the region in a variety of ways since then has taught me otherwise. I have taught history in Costa Rica, run a large aid program in Honduras, and defended hundreds of Central American refugees in the political asylum courts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

I was peripherally involved in the American Baptist Church vs. Thornburgh litigation and later worked as an Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum hearing officer. By interviewing hundreds of asylees from El Salvador and Guatemala, both as their legal representative and then later as their judge, I came to know much about the role of my own government in this sordid, secret mess, and I went on to conduct INS seminars on the role of the U.S. government in the activities of the “death squads” of Central America. We, the people of the United States, by averting our eyes from our government’s active support of the death squads policy, have been responsible for the deaths of 180,000 civilians in Guatemala, similar numbers in El Salvador and lesser numbers in Honduras and now Colombia and Mexico.

It is time to publicly debate our real foreign policy. We have chosen massive repression in these third world countries because we feared democracy. From our pinnacle of vast wealth, we’ve looked into tiny agricultural countries where the majority of the population is slowly dying of malnutrition and feared the rise of political parties that might institute a different economic development plan than the one we sponsor.

Russ Christensen lives in Temple.

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